Stay Tuned: ‘My Strange Addiction’ is too strange
By Melissa Crawley
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We get along, reality TV and me. Watching people fish, drive, dance, date, buy, sell, hunt, sing, shop, eat, drink and just look pretty — I say yes, why not? People on these shows are quirky or a little crazy or narcissists or exhibitionists or talented or super nice or hungry for fame, and that makes them interesting. I didn’t realize I wanted to know how a “hillbilly” catches fish with his hands until a show came along about that very topic. Was I feeling less complete before I had the opportunity to see a fun-loving guy travel America eating more food than any person wanting to reach the age of 40 should? No, but then along came Adam Richman in “Man v. Food” and “Man v. Food Nation,” and now that he’s lost weight and moved on to other reality show opportunities, I cheer him on even more. Put simply, I am not a critic who sees reality TV as the decline of Western civilization. Until now.
TLC’s “My Strange Addiction” finally broke me. The series features people who have addictions that mainly stem from compulsions. Men and women have discussed their uncontrollable need to drink gasoline and nail polish and to snort baby powder. There is a woman who carries the head of her childhood doll everywhere so that she can smell it and rub its smooth surface over her face. There is a man who is physically, mentally and sexually infatuated with his car. Some of the more disturbing addictions are the need to consume non-food items. Women are shown eating tape, rocks, drywall, plastic, dryer sheets and the ashes of a cremated husband. Yes, you read that right. On one season, a woman eats mattresses.
While there’s an element of exploitation in many reality shows, most of the time the participants are in on the joke (the family on “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” is just one example) and likely see it as a means to end where the end is money or fame. I don’t know what to say about the addicts on “My Strange Addiction.” If it’s fame they seek, it’s not the smartest plan. They have behaviors that you wouldn’t want your mother to know, let alone your co-workers or the wider world. I’m pretty sure no one is going to hire them to endorse a product, so making money is out. Then why risk the exposure? They claim to want treatment and they get it, but in a reality-TV way. This means they are filmed briefly speaking to a doctor who - surprise! - tells them that their health is at risk and then they are encouraged to consult a therapist. Certainly, an obsession to drink or eat toxic substances is a sign of deep psychological issues that aren’t going to be solved by a few short conversations with concerned family, friends and a therapist on a TV show.
I find it difficult to watch drug addicts on intervention shows, but somehow it’s easier than watching the people on “My Strange Addiction.” Maybe it’s because their compulsions are too out of the box for me to truly understand. I want to root for them and to feel glad they are asking for help but the focus of the show is on the addiction not the treatment. It’s too easy to feel only shock and disgust. And sadly, just as easy to see the participants as freaks instead of real people who deserve more help than a reality show can bring them.
“My Strange Addiction” is on Thursdays and Fridays on TLC.
Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a PhD in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.